The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth Books]
My favorite book of last year is available in paperback. The novel focuses on three young women in the Israeli army. They’re thrown into some truly adult and potentially dangerous situations. While they often think like hormonal, selfish, naïve teenagers at other times these women react with amazing strength, bravery and clarity. Boianjiu includes point of views from Egyptian army members, Palestinians and a Ukranian woman who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A veteran of the IDF, she writes with compassion, humor, modernity and a humanistic approach to the IDF and Israel’s issues with its border nations as well as the United States and the UK.
The Collective by Done Lee [W.W. Norton paperback, 2013]
“Give up trying. The world doesn’t need another dilettante, and that’s all you’ve ever been.”
This was one of my favorite novels of 2012. While at Macalester college, Eric Cho forms a strong friendship with painter Jessica Tsai and novelist Joshua Yoon. Years later they reunite in Cambridge forming the Asian American Artists Collective [3 AC]. Don Lee masterfully creates characters, story lines and vivid descriptions with the most gorgeous prose. These characters compete with each other, become jealous of one another and support each other’s goals. Lee truly grasps the creative lifestyle–its ups and downs, its starving moments, its triumphant moments.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer [ECCO, 2013]
“Why is it so impossible to be a woman? [sic] When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she always dreamed of it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions—wouldn’t you prefer to be back home, little lady?—that break the spell of the living.”
This one’s about time-travel however Greta travels in an unusual, ingenious way. It’s engrossing as long as you can get past the issue that causes Greta to time travel—she’s being treated for her depression by electroshock therapy—“Of course this was how our minds had connected in that blue electric flash of madness, across the membrane of three worlds so we switched places, two Gretas and myself, and awoke to different lives.” My issue wasn’t with that but with Greer never mentioning her depression as she traveled from her present day of 1984 to 1918 to 1941. The present Greta just lost her twin brother Felix to AIDS and her longtime paramour left her. In each time period she’s missing a loved one and her life’s slightly different. Even her physical appearance is a bit different. Greer recreates each time period through wonderful description, interesting people and dialogue. It’s a fast-paced novel perfect for summer reading. In the end Greta much decide which time she’s happiest in and in which she wants to remain.
Crazy Brave by Jo Harjo [W.W. Norton, 2012]
Poet and Native American Jo Harjo writes lyrically about her difficult childhood in the Midwest. Her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic; she faced extreme challenges as a Native American and pretty much raised two children on her own. While she recalls these horrific moments in her past she’s also hauntingly philosophical and forgiving. She writes: “In the end, we must each tend to our own gulf of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.” She also intersperses her tribe’s beliefs but never in an overbearing manner. About having a spinal tap in her youth, she writes: “The spinal column carries personal essence back and forth between earth and sky. The spine is powerful and vulnerable. The procedure was excruciating.” She’s a powerful voice for women and minorities; a truly beautiful soul.